Stories from the field
Creating collaborative social accountability bridges in Ghana
Collaborative social accountability can help build bridges between citizens and the state.
These bridges can foster joint problem-solving that harnesses the strengths of both civil society organizations and the government.
Working together can improve governance processes and government accountability, resulting in a more responsive, effective delivery of public services.
Positive experiences of this type of collaboration can have wider implications for how governments choose to govern.
Citizens and the state can create ideas and solutions together
“We set out to implement a model that involved collaborating with different ministries and they did collaborate, and that was quite significant.” Project Officer at the CSO SEND-Ghana
It was significant, not because Ghana is a restrictive country for civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate. On the contrary, the country is considered one of the freest in Africa with a vibrant civil society. It was significant because the government actually listened to communities and became a keen stakeholder in this project’s success.
In Ghana, like in many countries, there is some distrust between civil society and the government. The government may tolerate civil society but, in this climate, they are unlikely to support or join forces with CSOs.
Where distrust is the norm, what can we learn from efforts to build bridges between citizens and the state, and what positive things can come out of a collaboration between CSOs and governments? This is a retelling of how one CSO in Ghana, through a GPSA grant, was able to build such a bridge to change people’s lives.
Joint problem-solving through collaborative social accountability
In 2014, SEND-Ghana received a GPSA grant to undertake a project called “Making the Budget Work for Ghana.” It sought to strengthen accountability and transparency of the budget process in the health and education sectors in 30 districts in the country. Specifically, it aimed to improve citizens’ awareness of, and participation in, the budget process and put forward their demands for improvements in health and education.
This joint problem-solving approach is what the GPSA calls collaborative social accountability. Unlike other models of social accountability that use confrontational approaches or solely focus on bottom-up citizen action, this approach complements public management and service delivery chains with citizen-driven action. It enables government and civil society actors to build trust, assess options and risks for addressing problems, find feasible outcomes, negotiate them, and coalesce around solutions to create decisions and action.
In the case of SEND-Ghana’s project, this involved citizens through the country’s District Citizen Monitoring Committees, the district-level government in 30 districts, and the health, education, and finance ministries at the national level, representing multiple avenues for bridging citizens and state institutions.
Building trust through collaborative social accountability
Building trust between government and CSOs is key to achieving impact through collaborative social accountability. Several successful approaches were used by SEND-Ghana to this effect.
Creating a structure for collaboration: To create the bridge’s foundation, a formal agreement was made between the various stakeholders through a memorandum of understanding. A multistakeholder Project Steering Committee was also established. The Steering Committee met periodically throughout the project lifetime at a venue within the Ministry of Finance. This helped to give the government a sense of ownership of the process.
Strengthening the bridge: The bridge was then cemented by mutual trust. Two important factors enabled this trust to be gained. First, SEND-Ghana was able to overcome any perceived distrust by staying out of party politics. It also engaged with the government counterparts in an objective and collaborative way. In the words of a SEND-Ghana project officer: Neutrality was needed to make the findings presented by SEND-Ghana to the government accepted and for constructive discussions to be had about strategies to address the problems that were presented.
Understanding the mutual value: For any kind of meaningful collaboration to develop, all parties need to feel that the process was worth their time and energy. The bridge was further strengthened by a realization by the government counterparts that they had much to gain from collaborating with SEND-Ghana. The health and education ministries realized that the CSO could monitor service delivery and policy implementation at the local level; something the ministries were not well placed to do.
Ripple effects from positive experiences and next-generation social contracts
After this bridge was built through the support of the GPSA, SEND-Ghana has continued to have a good working relationship across the Ghanaian government and are often invited to offer their voice and the feedback from citizens in decision-making processes.
Positive examples of this one can create ripple effects that have wider implications for state-society relations and the social contract. In Ghana, the government has institutionalized social accountability by establishing a Directorate for Social Accountability in the Ministry of Local Government – no doubt influenced by the good work of SEND-Ghana and other CSOs. This directorate facilitates interaction between the national-level government, civil society, and local government, to enable social accountability practice to be a feature of the country’s accountability ecosystem. This type of collaboration between citizens and government is a trend to watch out for in the future. While it might not create big bangs and headlines, it certainly deserves to be celebrated.
Capitalizing on the ability of civil society organizations to collect information from users of public services about the state of public service delivery, and effectively channeling this information to decision-makers in government and parliament can contribute to evidence-based policymaking, and, ultimately, to improved public services.
Collaborative social accountability focuses on solving governance and service delivery challenges by convening, capacitating, and enabling purpose-led collaboration among those stakeholders that can evoke change in a particular policy area.
What does it take to make meaningful and lasting civil society-government collaboration happen?
Social accountability tools can be adopted in the most unlikely places, including those characterized as being hierarchical and where there are no existing accountability processes.